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How the Este Family in 15th c. Ferrara and Ptolemy’s Map Helped to Discover America

The illustrious family’s passion for knowledge and patronage of exploration changed the concept of the world and brought Columbus to America

by Caterina Crestani

La mappa del mondo dalla Geographia di Nicolo' Germanico. Photo: Wikipedia.

The discovery of America is the product of humanistic culture, thanks also in great part to the Este family, their patronage of humanists and explorers, and their desire to acquire knowledge in the form of books and maps such as Ptolemy’s Geography.

The Renaissance, apart from its literature and artistic meaning, may also be characterized by a crescendo of geographical curiosity induced by the discovery of new lands. After centuries, the Europeans start to have access to new seas, while until then they have maintained contact with Asia exclusively by land, as the Arab merchants, skilled in navigation, plied the monsoon troubled seas. In 1488, the Portuguese managed to go beyond the newly-named Cape of Good Hope, they made their way to Africa’s eastern side, crossed the Indian Ocean and landed in India. A turning point that inaugurated a new era of discoveries.

Christopher Columbus being received by Queen Isabella. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Four years later, 1492, the Genovese Cristoforo Colombo, convinced the Spaniards that he could reach India by going West across the Atlantic Ocean and reached the Caribbean islands, thinking to the end of his life that it was India. In 1500, the Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral landed in Brazil, called Ilha de Vera Croce.

The New World had now become an exciting reality in the eyes of Europeans, upsetting the political and economic assets of Europe at the beginning of the 16th century.

Already before that, the Italian courts, scholars, sailors and merchants had been fascinated by geographical studies, and they certainly influenced the willingness to reach new worlds. Among those influential courts, Ferrara played a central role. As we will shortly see, this can be illustrated by the production in 1409 of the Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geography dating from the 2nd century.

Alfonso II D’Este, Duke of Ferrara and husband of Lucrezia Borgia. Photo: Wikipedia

In the Renaissance the history of Ferrara is inextricably bound up with the history of the Este dynasty. Ferrara enjoyed a remarkably stable political rule at its height in the Renaissance. Three sons of Nicolò III d’Este, who ruled from 1393 to 1441, governed in peaceful succession after his death: Leonello (1447–1450), Borso (1413–1471), and Ercole I (1431–1505).

On February 2, 1502, Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, made her solemn entry into Ferrara as the wife of Alfonso I d’Este, eldest son of Duke Ercole I. Lucrezia, at her third wedding, was accompanied by a large wedding procession. Beautiful and intelligent, she was one of the main protagonists in the women’s Italian Renaissance.

At her court, Lucrezia was an active artistic patron and surrounded herself by poets, writers and musicians: Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo and other famous literary men of the time. Bembo, who struck up a real friendship with the young duchess, was fascinated by her beauty and culture. The poet openly declared his passion for her in letters and poems.

In 15th century Italy, Humanism–the return to the teaching and studying of the Latin and Greek culture–prepared the way for important geographical discoveries.

The first and possibly the most influential center of the humanistic culture was Florence, where in 1396 Manuel Chrysoloras, newly arrived from Constantinople, introduced the study of Greek, so that many manuscripts in Greek–geography as well as philosophy– could now be translated into Latin and studied. Among the most notable humanists we find Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano.

Ferrara too was a center of humanistic studies. The Este ruled over one of the most active courts of the Italian Renaissance, not only for its political and economic influence, but also for the attention given to culture, attracting to Ferrara first class artists, literary men and scientists. They also assembled a precious library dating back from the early 14th century.

Peoples of Southern Britain according to Ptolemy’s map. Photo: Wikipedia

Among the jewels of this library shines the illustrated manuscript of Ptolemy’s Geography, later known as the Cosmography of Borso d’Este, a translation into Latin of a Greek manuscript from Alexandria dating from around 150 A.D. when Egypt was under Roman domination. Ptolemy, one of the greatest scientists of the ancient world, wrote Geography, an atlas of the world as it was known in antiquity, that influenced cartography and geography. The copy of Ptolemy’s Geography that Borso d’Este owned was remarkable for its beauty.

The Duke bought it from the German cosmographer and astrologer Nicolò Germanico (Donnus Nicolaus Germanus). It is a Latin translation from the Greek by Angeli da Scarperia, now entitled Cosmographia, later known as the Cosmographia di Borso d’Este. In 1466, the Duke paid 100 florins for the manuscript. It contains 27 geographical maps re-elaborated according to trapezoid projections. Its unique ambition was to represent the world as it was known at that time. The manuscript is kept at the Estense Library in Modena.

The spread of Ptolemy’s Geography (in its Latin translation in the Cosmographia) testifies to the desire of Italian Humanism to overcome the limits of medieval geographic culture, opening new paths to explore.

One of the many depictions from Orlando Furioso. Julius Schnorr von Caroesfeld, “Battaglia tra cristiani e mori”. Casa Massimo frescos. Image: Wikipedia.

The Este library, so rich in maps and and geography books, provided fertile sources for Ludovico Ariosto’s famous poem Orlando furioso, edited in 1516. The importance of geographical and cartographical knowledge is revealed in Ariosto’s work, the toponyms and geographical references, often abstract and stylized, underlie ‘real’ places. The satisfaction of the court of Ferrara for the fantastic geography pursues the image of the real world in the making, unveiled by the discoveries and confirmed by geography and cartography. The world was opening up to ‘New Worlds’, thanks to the voyages of exploration promoted by Portuguese and Spanish.

Lucrezia Borgia. Photo: Wikipedia

In 1502, the Duke Ercole d’Este (1431-1505) sent a spy to Lisbon, Alberto Cantino, to get all possible information concerning the Portuguese discoveries. Cantino was clever and bold enough to have a map made secretly, in which the new African and American territories, unknown to Ptolemy, are inscribed. The precious, beautiful map, the so-called Cantino map, is still in Ferrara. At that time in Portugal and Spain maps were officially top government secrets and revealing them to those who were not entitled to them was a capital crime, so Cantino was putting his life on the line to further the expansion of such knowledge.

Renaissance Ferrara was a city that, for its geographical curiosity, competed with all the other European capitals for new knowledge on the contours of the world. Italy became a center for the education of the new Argonauts such as Cristoforo Colombo, Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni Caboto.

Vespucci was the first to understand that the new vast territory was not the Indias but a New Continent: America, named after himself. The discovery of America is the product of humanistic culture, thanks also in great part to the Este family, their patronage of humanists and explorers, and their desire to acquire knowledge in the form of books and maps such as Ptolemy’s Geography. The strong resonance aroused by the Ptolemaic model most certainly influenced the enterprise of Christopher Columbus whose discoveries essentially changed the human concept of the world they lived in.


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